Films Without Borders: An Interview with Christian Petzold
By Gregg LaGambinaMay 6, 2019
German film director Christian Petzold’s eighth feature, Transit, is not as dark as all that — though those are its basic plot points and devices. It is, in fact, full of unyielding light: the sun’s glare reflects off the bright white concrete of the ports that dominate its Marseille landscape. Everyone is in plain sight, on the move, pockets filled with papers and trinkets — all of the small things too precious to leave behind, when the only real necessity is proof of who you are. And the permission to leave.
The anxiety of the refugee is akin to a compass left too near a magnet. It’s the same directionless fatigue that can been seen across the face of Georg (Franz Rogowski) who, in a sense, acts as Transit’s fixed point, the bearing on which other characters rely to show them the way out of war-torn France. As Georg follows Marie (Paula Beer) around corners, down alleyways, and into a café, waiting for the door to open and a small bell to chime the announcement of her arrival, he instead ends up befriending Richard (Godehard Giese), her lover. The trio begins to arrange themselves like puzzle pieces, with Georg managing most of the logistics, including the acquisition of the coveted visas that deliver the promise of departure, but not a guarantee.
Based on the 1944 novel by Anna Seghers, the film reflects our current historical moment while simultaneously questioning the very ideas of history, society, and time. Georg, Marie, and Richard are a society of their own, hidden from the larger society they inhabit and wish to escape. Petzold rearranges his trio, pursued by the ever-present music of police sirens, into configurations of escape that fuel Transit’s dramatic momentum. Who will get to embark? And will they get far enough away to allow for the luxury of forgetting?
After both Barbara (2012) and Phoenix (2014) were recognized in the United States by the National Board of Review, Petzold’s Transit should serve to cement his membership to the smallest club in all of America: foreign film directors whose every new release is eagerly awaited by however many theater-going cinephiles remain in this country. Shortly before the film’s theatrical release, I spoke to Petzold with the assistance of a translator, whom he mostly eschewed, preferring to answer in English himself.
GREGG LAGAMBINA: When does Transit take place?
CHRISTIAN PETZOLD: It’s a film that takes place in-between. There is a story about François Truffaut and Jean Renoir. Renoir had made a movie, La Marseillaise (1938), which is a period picture. He made the film completely in the studio. There was one scene that was filmed outside of the studio, in the woods. And Truffaut criticized this scene. He said, “A period picture cannot be filmed in nature, because in nature, the wind and the trees are from our time and not from that time. In a studio, there are rooms where you can make a period picture.” Renoir's answer was, “All movies are contemporary. There is no ‘period picture.’” This was his answer to Truffaut. I like his answer. For me, it's the same. I was just telling [my translator, Nettie Jansen] that I had watched Barry Lyndon (1975) yesterday with my wife, for the 10th time in my life. For me, this is also a movie which is contemporary. It's not a movie which tries to reenact the past. It's our view, our look, our window. In our contemporary times, in the cities and the societies in which we are living, the past is part of the contemporary. That was my idea for this film.
The ongoing rise in awareness and amount of refugees seeking asylum around the world must have had some influence on you to make this film now, though. If Transit has no fixed time period, and the story takes place “in-between,” with characters that have no permanent home, present day makes this film resonate more than it would have even just a few years ago, no?
That's right. When I started to work with the novel by Anna Seghers and to write the film with [the late screenwriter and director] Harun Farocki many years ago, we didn't think about refugees and migration. We both loved this novel because, in a way, the novel itself is a refugee. The literature and language of Anna Seghers was German Expressionism of the 1920s; it has quotations from Franz Kafka in it, and so on. On the other hand, her novel is very modern. It's like the American short stories by Hemingway or Dos Passos. So we have this language which is also on the run, in the changing moment.
For me, cinema is also like this. I am German, and I was educated by the films of Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau. But, on the other hand, my goal was always to look at movies from the United States. All of these movies which I loved so much when I was young — The Lost Weekend (1945) by Billy Wilder, The Killers (1946) by Robert Siodmak, Detour (1945) by Edgar Ulmer — all of these movies are made by Germans, who had to leave Germany because of fascism. They came to Hollywood, to the studios, and they took that German cinematic light from the ’20s, but they created something new. It's similar to Seghers’s book, Transit. This was the first thing Harun and I were interested in. Then we started to write it at the same moment when the refugee situation was happening all around us. They came into the story. This is why I was so astonished when I saw the first edit of Transit. I watched this moment when Georg arrived at the apartment, after he tried to find the little boy he met playing soccer outside. He helps him fix his broken radio. To each other, they are strange faces. But they look into each other’s face and they know each other. It's like a handshake. They understand each other. This was the moment, I think, when Harun and I realized the contemporary refugee subject had come into our story.
We try to impose artificial boundaries on everything from countries to what a film should be, or even a novel. We think we know what we're making when we are in the middle of creating something, but then what you just said happens: the world finds a way in. This is a larger statement about the boundaries we set up for ourselves and others, including your film. In this transitory state, boundaries might exist, but people — and ideas — will always find their way in. Really, there are no boundaries other than the ones we imagine or invent.
That's right. I love that. I must admit, I am a Protestant and a bit of an engineer. I like process and logistics, and I write everything down. I have six weeks of rehearsal with the actors and the team, when we would watch movies, too. During the shoot in Marseille, we had a cinema on the roof of our hotel where we had a movie to watch each evening. We would watch them together — the cast, the cameraman, everybody from our team — we looked at a lot of movies. I like to control a film, but I also hope something happens to disturb me from that impulse. The refugee thing was the main subject which changed everything for me. When we went to France on our first trip to find the locations, there was this so-called “jungle” in Calais. It was a refugee camp with thousands of refugees living under bridges in a very poor situation. Then the bulldozers came and destroyed this “jungle.”
It was such a hard picture to make while feeling this bitterness about these poor people who have no place to live anymore. It's a little bit like this movie I saw last autumn, an American movie called Leave No Trace (2018). Tents and trailer parks full of people who have fallen out of society and by looking for a place, they want to also build up a society of their own. But our society destroys these places everywhere, because we don't want to have them. Everything like this comes into the artist's view and it fed our passion for making this movie because we were so affected by what we saw.
In Transit, this idea of identity and how we arrive at identifying others, appears over and over again. In one particular scene, Georg is teaching the child how to not tip off a goalie with his form. He teaches him how to kick without giving away the direction of the ball. The child asks if Georg is German because, “They love goalies.” He recognizes this trace of national identity in Georg, but they play together. Their shared passion for sport is stronger than their “nationality.”
That's right. This is also cinema. The people who communicate, who play football with each other — I love it. When I was a child, when I would see someone repairing a bicycle, I would stand there and look at them. There was this atmosphere where someone was a pupil and the other was a teacher. We can show each other. We don't need language. This is like the scene where Georg is repairing the radio, or, as you said, when they play football with each other. This is communication and that is the start of society. Loyalty, trust, solidarity — everything comes from communication. All walls and all prisons, they are there to destroy communication.
There was this friend of our family and he was a craftsman, with fantastic hands. When my kids were very young, he would visit and we would drink tea or coffee and have a cigarette together. The kids would come into the living room and always go straight to him because of his skill. Because he could do something with his hands, they trusted him. I remember when we filmed that radio scene — when someone can repair a radio and can also describe what he is doing to a little boy, this is a fantastic situation. In this moment, there is everything: love, trust, all emotions are in this kind of work and in working together. It’s this teacher/pupil relationship. This is something that society wants to build up by itself, on its own. And there are people who want to destroy this? This idea of a Mexican border wall and the refugee politics in Europe — it’s a problem.
The café scene that opens the film is itself a reminder that borders are imaginary. The café is in France, people are speaking German, and there is a menu offering Neapolitan pizza. Three cultures all inhabiting one small room. The scene at the embassy, where this stranger is obsessively counting the required number of photographs to submit for his transit papers. It’s as if he is reminding himself who he is. He’s looking at photos of himself, but not quite sure if they are enough. Or if “they” will believe that it is “him.” He has to prove it to himself that he is who he is. Where does this authority, and its accompanying fear, come from? We constantly have to prove who we are and that we belong, as if being human were not enough.
When I was 16, I read this book by William Burroughs called Naked Lunch. I don't know if it's popular anymore with young people, but for me it was a very important book. In this book, when all of these drug-addicted characters come to Morocco, they know where to find the drugs. They can find the other drug-addicted people immediately. It's as if there is this communication which is underground — communication channels we can't see, but they all know about. Nowadays, refugees are able to find these places where they can get information, or an opportunity to earn some money, or to find a cheap cell phone and call home.
The refugees in Marseille, in 1942, they know the bar where they can be safe [similar to Rick’s Café from Casablanca]. For me, this is like the pizzeria — here, we can meet. You have ordinary life all around you. There are everyday people going to the coffee shop or to buy something, but the refugees have their own communication channels. This interests me. They have their own society. And in this society they have the big themes: love, trust, loyalty, solidarity. They invented these societies on their own, a second time, to build a new life. To me, they have more power and energy than the societies that are falling down all around them.
This horrible word “cleansing” is spoken often in the film. It is always an imminent threat — “The cleansing has begun,” as someone says. What does it mean to be “clean”? Who decides who belongs?
The United States is an immigrant country. It's a mixture of people. So, this idea of “cleansing” is a European idea; it's a German idea. It comes from German nationalism and ideology, to “clean” a society. That's why I use it in the film. It’s the same with the French prime minister that wanted to clean the “jungle” in Calais. There is an old quotation from Aristotle, where he says, "A city is always made of different people." A city cannot be created if everyone is the same. The city is always a mixture. The people who want to clean them, they bring death. During the shooting of Transit, we had a print of a painting by Giorgio de Chirico, The Enigma of Arrival and the Afternoon, in our production office. In it, you can see a harbor. No people are in this harbor anymore. Outside on the sea, there is a ship but nobody is aboard. No one is coming anymore, because it has been cleaned. I think this is the dream of the fascist — to clean up and bring death to societies.
What is your motivating force for making a film like this? Georg takes advantage of mistaken identity, pretending to be a dead novelist in order to find his way out, to find love, and to find access to the documents that will set him free. He took on another person’s life story — and his unpublished novel — to effect actual change in his own real life via fiction. Is this your hope when you make films, that the stories you make will in some way contribute to a deeper understanding of these issues and maybe even change the world, just as Georg changed his own?
For me, a movie is always like a house. In Transit, it's a house where all of the windows and doors are open. All rooms are transit rooms. You can see this in the pizzeria. The people are passing by, moving into the second room at the back. The hotel rooms all have two windows or two doors that are open. Everything is in transit, in movement. To me, this movie is like a very modern, transparent house. I think you can build up a society where you don't need a cave, you don't need a wall, and you don't need a prison cell where all the rooms are closed. In a transit room, you can find the story. You can live in a house like this.
This movie is also like Marseille. It is also a transparent, transitory town. I would love to live there. I can't speak French, not a word, so that would be a big problem for me because my silly parents wanted me to become a doctor and had me take Latin instead of French. But, for me, Marseille — this is the city of my life. It's complicated. It's full of refugees. You don't see tourists there. They are hidden. The tourists don't know where they can go, because the city is so self-conscious that they don't look at tourists. They don't need them. It’s not like Venice where they are waiting for them. Marseille is not interested in tourists. For this movie, I always said to the team, "We must be like Marseille. This must be an open place." It's hard for the people who live there. They have fear, but in this fear and in this transparency, these protagonists will find their own, better stories.
Gregg LaGambina is a writer living in Los Angeles.
LARB Staff Recommendations
"Transit" offers the unreassuring thrill of a reasonable, intelligent person having the nerve to say, clearly, just how bad he thinks things are.
A discussion of a new collection of essays by immigrant writers.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!